Present and future directions of translational research on aflatoxin and hepatocellular carcinoma. A review

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


The aflatoxins were discovered in toxic peanut meal causing "turkey X" disease, which killed large numbers of turkey poults, ducklings and chicks in the UK in the early 1960s. Extracts of toxic feed induced the symptoms in experimental animals, and purified metabolites with properties identical to aflatoxins B1 and G1 (AFB1 and AFG1) were isolated from Aspergillus flavus cultures. Structure elucidation of aflatoxin B1 was accomplished and confirmed by total synthesis in 1963. AFB1 is a potent liver carcinogen in rodents, non-human primates, fish and birds, operating through a genotoxic mechanism involving metabolic activation to an epoxide, formation of DNA adducts and, in humans, modification of the p53 gene. Aflatoxins are unique among environmental carcinogens, in that elucidation of their mechanisms of action combined with molecular epidemiology provides a foundation for quantitative risk assessment; extensive evidence confirms that contamination of the food supply by AFB1 puts an exposed population at increased risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Molecular biomarkers to quantify aflatoxin exposure in individuals were essential to link aflatoxin exposure with liver cancer risk. Biomarkers were validated in populations with high HCC incidence in China and The Gambia, West Africa; urinary AFB1-N7-Guanine excretion was linearly related to aflatoxin intake, and levels of aflatoxin- serum albumin adducts also reflected aflatoxin intake. Two major cohort studies employing aflatoxin biomarkers identified their causative role in HCC etiology. Results of a study in Shanghai men strongly support a causal relationship between HCC risk and the presence of biomarkers for aflatoxin and HBV infection, and also show that the two risk factors act synergistically. Subsequent cohort studies in Taiwan confirm these results. IARC classified aflatoxin as a Group 1 human carcinogen in 1993, based on sufficient evidence in humans and experimental animals indicating the carcinogenicity of naturally occurring mixtures of aflatoxins, aflatoxin B1, G1 and M1. Aflatoxin biomarkers have also been used to show that primary prevention to reduce aflatoxin exposure can be achieved by low-technology approaches at the subsistence farm level in sub-Saharan Africa. Also, in residents of Qidong, China, oral dosing with chlorophyllin, a chlorophyll derivative, prior to each meal led to significant reduction in aflatoxin-DNA biomarker excretion, supporting the feasibility of preventive measures to reduce HCC risk in populations experiencing unavoidable aflatoxin exposure. The systematic, comprehensive approach used to create the total aflatoxin database justifies optimism for potential success of preventive interventions to ameliorate cancer risk attributable to aflatoxin exposure. This strategy could serve as a template for the development, validation and application of molecular and biochemical markers for other carcinogens and cancers as well as other chronic diseases resulting from environmental exposures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)249-257
Number of pages9
JournalFood Additives and Contaminants
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • Aflatoxins
  • Chromatography
  • LC/MS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Chemistry (miscellaneous)
  • Chemistry(all)
  • Toxicology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


Dive into the research topics of 'Present and future directions of translational research on aflatoxin and hepatocellular carcinoma. A review'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this